On June 15, the United National recognizes World Elder Abuse Day. In a time where even older celebrities such as Stan Lee can be a victim of elder abuse, this day is a reminder of the importance of paying attention to the problem of physical, emotional, and financial abuse of older adults.
In the beginning of a four part series on the impact of Ageism and elder abuse in America, NAB Member Charles Christiansen examines the unique connection between aging and elder abuse and ways that our society has maligned one of America’s largest and growing populations. Through this important discussion we can understand the challenges and opportunities presented by an ageing population, and exchange ideas about how best to reduce incidents of violence towards older adults, increase reporting of such abuse, and to develop better policies that support us all.
America’s Other Social Nemesis: Ageism and Elder Abuse
“Human beings need the freedom to live with change, to invent and reinvent themselves a number of times through their lives.”
-Robert N. Butler, MD. Aging in America, 1975
All too frequently, reports on the arrest or conviction of an individual for defrauding or abusing an older person appear in local news reports. For a time, I wondered why these reports didn’t get more attention. At first I surmised that the events were not viewed as sufficiently important to warrant greater coverage. Perhaps ageism, society’s name for discriminatory attitudes toward older persons, was at play. I also considered that because they often involved relatives or caregivers of the victims, they were considered “domestic matters” rather than threats to society-at-large.
On further reflection, my training as a social scientist led me to suspect and confirm that the two phenomena (ageism and elder abuse) were closely linked. When a society devalues a certain category of people, discriminatory practices and abuses of people in that group are treated as less important. And indeed, a brief search quickly revealed that behaviors influenced by implicit biases involving race (or gender) also apply to cultural biases against age. Thus began my deeper inquiry into the societal discrimination and abuse of elders.
Currently, persons in the category of those aged 65 and older constitute nearly fifteen percent of the population. This percentage is expected to climb to more than 1 in 5 by the year 2050. By 2020, for the first time ever, there will be more people over 65 living on earth than those under age 5. Yet, despite a world with greater numbers of older people; prejudicial attitudes toward them may well be getting worse.
Americans live in a culture that worships the beauty and vitality of youth. Cosmetic surgery, age-reducing beauty products, and longevity-inspired diets and supplements abound. Meanwhile, Millennials also now constitute the largest segment of the population, and are arguably the most influential population group. At 18-34, they are in the prime of life, having families, moving into roles of authority, and dramatically shaping prevailing lifestyles and greatly influencing the tempo of the culture. This influence has contributed to the way that aging is viewed in America, and in many cases causing older Americans to be viewed as less competent, inflexible, and ultimately less valued.
Negative attitudes toward aging in the United States are well documented.
A study by the Frameworks Institute, concluded that “While Americans have, and are able to hold, an idealized picture of aging in their minds, this bubble is constantly and predictably perforated by what people see as a much more negative and inevitable process of deterioration.”  The study, reported in detail at the 2015 Gerontological Society of America annual meeting, prompted a summit of leading organizations to endorse efforts to reframe perspectives of aging through a joint initiative toolkit called “Gaining Momentum”.
“While Americans have, and are able to hold, an idealized picture of aging in their minds, this bubble is constantly and predictably perforated by what people see as a much more negative and inevitable process of deterioration.”
Ageism is further propelled in our workplace. A recent article on ageism in The New Yorker argues that the fast moving tech industry may be part of the problem. The industry has a culture that believes its workers are at their peak at age 25. While the sector has been criticized for its sexist employment practices, ageism may be an even more change-resistant feature of its culture. One explanation for ageism’s intractable nature holds that it conveniently allows people to ignore the unpleasant reality that we will all eventually get old and die. Ironically, there is a growing body of research to suggest that people who hold ageist attitudes are more likely to become burdened with the very problems of senescence they fear as they grow older.  With a prevalent culture of aging and a fear of the inevitable, it is a small wonder that Millennials have limited patience with the pace comfortable to their parents, who are “digital immigrants” and quite happy to slow things down and “enjoy the moment.”
The discriminatory practices and pejorative attitudes stemming from ageism are also the doorway to even worse behavior that on one end of the spectrum includes stereotypes and discrimination and at the far end result in elder abuse. At first blush, this clash of lifestyles might help explain some pejorative attitudes toward older people. But stereotypes and discrimination affecting older persons have existed in the culture for many decades. The term ageism, used to describe these prejudicial attitudes, was coined by acclaimed gerontologist Robert N. Butler, MD, in 1969. Butler maintained that ageism consists of three connected elements: Prejudicial attitudes towards the aging process and older individuals; discriminatory practices associated with these attitudes, and institutional practices and policies that perpetuate stereotypes about older adults. Its pervasive nature makes ageism an especially important problem for society to acknowledge and address, because ageism and abuse are so closely linked. [In part two we will explore how elder abuse impact whole communities rather than just the person being abused.]
Dr. Charles Christiansen is a member of Anthem’s National Advisory Board on Long Term Services, and a social scientist and educator with a clinical background in occupational therapy. He is the Chair-Elect of the Society for the Study of Occupation. He can be contacted through his page at: about.me/charleschristiansen or at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is part one of a multi-part series on Ageism and Elder abuse. For future installments, visit us at www.mydif.org or follow us on Twitter and Facebook.
 Levy, B. & Banaji, M.R. (2017) Implicit Ageism. In TD Nelson (Ed). Stereotyping and Prejudice against Older Persons. (2 ed). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
 This is not to suggest in any way that ageism and elder abuse compare to the egregious and longstanding injustices suffered by African Americans in the United States over the period of its existence, or for that matter are more problematic than pervasive sexism against women.
 Epidemiologists are unsure about the effect of chronic illnesses on the projected rate of growth. High rates of obesity may reduce life expectancy through its association with metabolic, cardiac and other chronic diseases,
 Simon, A., O’Neil, M., & Haydon, A. (2015). Aging, agency, and attribution of responsibility: Shifting public discourse about older adults. Washington, DC: FrameWorks Institute. This research was conducted by the FrameWorks Institute, and is part of a larger, multi-method collaborative
project sponsored by the Leaders of Aging Organizations, a group administered by Grantmakers in Aging that includes AARP, the American Federation for Aging Research, the American Geriatrics Society, the American Society on Aging, the Gerontological Society of America, the National Council on Aging, and the National ging, Agency, and Attribution of Responsibility: Shifting Public Discourse about Older Adults Hispanic Council on Aging. The project is managed by Laura Robbins of Laura A. Robbins Consulting, LLC. The collaboration seeks to develop a new, evidence-based narrative about the process of aging, and the roles and contributions of older adults in American society.*